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Mathematics. The History of the Number Zero

Exploring the mathematical sciences through a historical paradigm can seem confusing because it is difficult for the human mind to perceive this knowledge’s artificiality. For example, numbers and number relationships seem to be perfectly natural phenomena whose patterns can be found in the study of plants, genetic mechanisms, or population biology. However, numbers are only mathematical models that have been invented by man. This essay summarizes the history of the number zero.

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As a fundamental arithmetic element, zero appeared in antiquity simultaneously with the positional number system’s recognition. For example, the ancient Babylonians used the hexadecimal system, in which zero was depicted as a skip in a cuneiform cell (“A history of Zero,” 2019). In this sense, both the Babylonians and the Sumerians did not perceive the zero as a separate, independent digit but was instead an indicator of the absence of a sign. In the other civilizations of the Ancient East, zero was not present: the ancient Greeks and Romans used letter designations for large numbers, while the Chinese and Egyptians replaced zeros in 100 with hieroglyphics.

On the other hand, zero was present in the arithmetic alphabet of the Maya and Inca tribes. For the Maya people, the symbolism of an empty shell was used instead of the traditional zero: this is how they illustrated both emptiness and infinity (West, 2019). Inca mathematics was based on the knot system’s use, in which one loop of a knot showed the number one. Then zero was illustrated with a skip on a string so that the Incas could understand when it referred to the absence of something. The first mention of the zero, depicted in a circle, was found in an Indian manuscript in 876 BC (Gibbens, 2017). The discovery indicated the wide use of this number for literature, poetry, and calculations. From India, the zero came to the Arab countries, from where Europe borrowed it.

In medieval Europe, several attempts were made to interpret the phenomenon of zero. According to extant information, Europeans tried to find the origins of this number by translating ancient Greek and Arabic texts. From the 16th century onwards, zero became a widespread practice in western Germany and has since fully acquired its modern meaning, mostly thanks to Leonhard Euler’s writings.

References

Gibbens, S. (2017). Ancient text reveals new clues to the origin of zero. National Geographic. Web.

A history of Zero. (2019). Web.

West, D. (2019). How did the Ancient Mayans discover zero? The Startup Medium. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2022, July 15). Mathematics. The History of the Number Zero. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/mathematics-the-history-of-the-number-zero/

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StudyCorgi. "Mathematics. The History of the Number Zero." July 15, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/mathematics-the-history-of-the-number-zero/.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Mathematics. The History of the Number Zero." July 15, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/mathematics-the-history-of-the-number-zero/.

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StudyCorgi. (2022) 'Mathematics. The History of the Number Zero'. 15 July.

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